CINCINNATI – New Ohio laws hit the books in September, legalizing medical marijuana -- a drug Northside’s Nicole Scholten believes will help her daughter Lucy and thousands of sick and suffering patients across the state.
But just how soon patients like Lucy might be able to get the drug in Ohio is still a big unknown.
“Thank goodness the law has been passed, but good luck finding a doctor who will recommend it,” said Scholten, whose daughter Lucy has cerebral palsy and more than 150 epileptic seizures a day. “If you can’t find a doctor, it may as well be illegal.”
While Ohio's medical marijuana law goes into effect Sept. 8, it doesn't require the system to be fully operational until September 2018.
That means many doctors are still waiting to see how the new rules come together before they consider making any recommendations for the drug, says Dr. Michael Privitera, director of the Epilepsy Center at the UC Neuroscience Institute.
“In my clinic at least once or twice a day there is somebody who comes in and asks about (medical marijuana),” said Privitera, who also serves as the president of the American Epilepsy Society. “At this point medical marijuana is an unproven treatment. There are lots of anecdotal reports ... but these don't really tell us that the medicine works."
Because marijuana is still illegal federally, doctors won't be prescribing the drug.
Instead, certified physicians will recommend its use based on a list of medical conditions specified in Ohio's legislation, which include epilepsy, Cancer, post-traumatic stress disorder, Alzheimer’s Disease and many others.
By Oct. 8, a 14-member advisory committee must be created that will make recommendations for how to grow medical marijuana, how physicians should recommend it and how patients will obtain it.
Department of Commerce, State Pharmacy Board and State Medical Board -- the three state agencies in charge of overseeing Ohio's new medical marijuana laws -- will then receive those recommendations.
Locally, some health care systems are taking a wait-and-see approach to medical marijuana.
"It is too soon to speculate on how this may impact our healthcare ministry," said Nanette Bentley, a spokeswoman for Bond Hill-based Mercy Health. "We are watching this issue closely and working with ethics and religious experts and our clinical leaders to prepare for a variety of scenarios."
At UC Health, officials are expected to meet soon to formalize how to work through a host of big decisions to make related to medical marijuana, Privitera said.
“There are a lot of different scenarios that a health system has to consider,” he said.
For example, leaders at UC Health are already exploring how to handle any medical marijuana that may be brought into a hospital by a patient. Typically prescriptions brought in by patients are held in the hospital’s pharmacy and then nurses and physicians administer them.
“But the pharmacies get evaluated by the DEA (U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency), and from the DEA’s perspective this is still an illegal drug,” Privitera said. “So we have to a lot think through. There are so many layers that have lots of ramifications.”
But other medical providers are taking a firmer stand.
"We would not recommend the use of medical cannabis until the FDA rules that it is safe and effective," said Jim Feuer, a spokesman for Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center.
That’s upsetting to parents like Scarlett Leisure, whose daughter Savannah has epilepsy and has battled full-body seizures since she was 11 weeks old.
“It’s infuriating to know medical marijuana will be legal… yet none of Savannah’s doctors are willing to give us a recommendation,” said Leisure, who makes a nearly two-hour trip regularly from her Leesburg, Ohio, home to Children’s Hospital Avondale medical center.
On a recent trip, the center's staff told Leisure that she could no longer administer a hemp-oil based product to Savannah. Leisure’s been using the product since December to help control Savannah's seizures.
“It’s the one thing that’s actually been working really well,” Leisure said. “I just can’t believe how quickly a doctor will prescribe a drug that has so many horrible side effects, but then we find something that works and I’m told I can’t use it.”
Meanwhile, leaders at the Ohio Patients Network in Blue Ash say consumers have been inundating them with questions about medical marijuana.
"We're getting a lot of questions, and we're finding there is a lot of misinformation out there," said Robert Ryan, executive director of the patient advocate group.
The nonprofit has published a long list of tips on its website about how to start the conversation about the drug with your doctor.
- Gather up and organize all your medical records, including your current medications.
- Keep a master copy of your medical records, and always get a copy of any paperwork you sign.
- Gather credible information about your condition and the use of cannabis to treat it.
- Establish or have an ongoing relationship with a local doctor.
- Be open and honest in your discussion.
But Ryan said his No. 1 tip for patients: “Don’t wait.”
“We're telling people, ‘Start talking to your doctor now,’” he said.